4.3. Fish exploitation
Billions of people rely on fish for protein, and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world. For centuries, our seas and oceans have been considered a limitless bounty of food. However, increasing fishing efforts over the last 50 years as well as unsustainable fishing practices are pushing many fish stocks to the point of collapse.
Overfishing occurs when more fish is caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. With over 75% of all or abundantly exploited fish stocks worldwide, we are exhausting the fish and edible marine life forms that are eaten faster than their populations can regenerate. More than 30 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened. Target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, is changing marine communities, which lead to an abundance of smaller marine species, such as sardines and anchovies.
As far as the Mediterranean is concerned, fish stocks have come under growing pressure from economic expansion, population growth and tourism as well as from decades of overfishing. Combined with illegal fishing, discards, pollution and flaws in the way in which relevant data are collected and monitored, this has led to much of the fish stock becoming at risk of depletion and exhaustion. Data suggest that at least 96% of the bottom species is subject to excessive exploitation, while for pelagic fishes such as sardines and anchovy, the percentage is 71% or more. Scientists from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre have estimated that for some fish, such as hake, red mullet, black-bellied anglerfish and blue whiting, current mortality rates are at six times the sustainable level. Over the past 50 years the Mediterranean has lost 41% of its marine mammals and 34% of the total fish population. Current level of pressure on the Mediterranean region might push the ecosystem beyond the point of no return without some urgent measures and changes of human behavior.
However, more and more fishing communities are recognizing that their future is in their hands and that only by reconciling fishing with the restoration of the marine environment will they be able to recover stocks, increase catches, and ultimately improve their livelihoods. The efforts in fisheries must also be undertaken in parallel with major reforms in other ocean sectors, particular in tourism, which also rely heavily on a healthy Mediterranean.
Many precious species are reaching the critical point of no return for their conservation but the uninformed consumers continue to support this trade. Control of purchasing power is an effective market-oriented tool and can make a difference in the sustainable use of food resources. Reliable scientific data collection comply with the volume of catches, ensure that fishermen work in stock protection and use tools with low environmental impact.